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What is Hygge?

Nick Curtis

Hygge – it rhymes with ‘sugar’, only with a propulsive stress on the first syllable as if clearing one’s throat – is a Danish concept variously translated as ‘cosiness’, ‘comfort’ or ‘wellbeing’, though I suspect in reality it means ‘massive prank played on gullible Brits by our quietly smirking Scandinavian neighbours’. Hygge is about common sense (wear a scarf in the cold) mixed with low-level self-indulgence (eat cake, drink beer, have cream in your coffee) and a bit of interior design (save up for a nice lamp or a ‘statement’ chair – a comfortable one, mind you, probably with a fuzzy blanket on it). 

It’s about sharing your life with loved ones and being thankful for what you’ve got even when you are alone. It’s candlelight and real fires, handicrafts and home cooking. Though hard to pin down precisely, it’s fairly easy instinctively to know what is hygge and what is non-hygge. Sledging and cycling are hygge. Buying a Range Rover is non-hygge. Fresh-baked bread is hygge. Freshly squeezed vegetable juice is non-hygge. Woolly jumpers are hygge. A three-piece suit and tie is non-hygge. And so on.

This hazy, cosy state of mind has now been packaged and sold to the UK as an aspirational lifestyle by supermarkets, interior design brands and publishers. Indeed, if current trends in the book trade continue, every single one of Denmark’s 5.6 million residents will have published a ‘how to hygge’ guide by 2050. Much as we all became competitive in our consumption of Nordic Noir (‘Oh, haven’t you seen Wallander/The Killing/The Bridge/Borgen/Trapped..?’) we are now working ourselves up into a right old state about how hygge our lives are. 

Does the ‘hyggekrog’, or cosy corner, we have created in our homes have the right kind of cashmere throw in it? How does one serve creamy coffee to a lactose-intolerant friend or spouse? And does the (terrifyingly expensive) Poul Henningsen Artichoke lamp we painfully sourced on eBay actually throw enough light to read a favourite book by? (Squinting is non-hygge.)

The irony, of course, is that hygge is a thing one should relax into rather than strive for. It is also a conditioned response to a particular society and location. Denmark is a country of high taxes and long, cold winters, yet it has come top of the World Happiness Report three times out of four since it was first published in 2012. This is partly cause and effect, according to Meik Weiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen (yes, really) and author of the Little Book of Hygge. High taxes fund a generous welfare state, providing ‘free access to healthcare, university education and generous unemployment benefits’ which all help to reduce ‘extreme unhappiness’. Also (and this is my theory, not Weiking’s), if you didn’t find ways to embrace the cold and the dark, you’d kill yourself. 

Although it’s a myth that Denmark has the highest suicide rate in the world, it has a higher one than Britain’s (8.8 deaths per 100,000 people compared with our 6.2, since you ask). It also has one of the highest divorce rates in Europe, with 42.7 per cent of marriages ending in a distinctly non-hygge state in 2013. Oh, and there’s a price to pay for all that cream, cake and beer: life expectancy for Danish men is just 78 years, which is near the bottom for Western European countries. Regular visits to Denmark – my sister and her family live in Copenhagen – have led me to believe there are an inordinate number of psychotherapists and children’s home workers in the country, too.

So not everything is hunky-dory and hyggelig in the land of the pickled herring. And Danes who embrace hygge are perhaps merely battening down the hatches and toughing it out before an artery-clotted heart attack and lonely, early death. Rather than emulate them, we should perhaps revert to our own national state of mind: uptight, repressed, sarcastic. A far better coping strategy for the modern world than hygge, I think. 

This story was from December 2016 issue. Subscribe Now